Grief shaming: why you should never judge someone for grieving in their own way

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Kayleigh Dray
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Laura Whitmore has been criticised for attending the Brits so shortly after Caroline Flack’s death. This grief shaming needs to stop. 

On 18 February 2020, Laura Whitmore – like many other celebrities – walked the red carpet at the 2020 Brit Awards. Unlike many others, though, the Love Island presenter was shamed by some on social media for doing so.

Why? Because they felt that, in the wake of Caroline Flack’s death, Whitmore should have stayed at home and grieved for her late friend.

“How can you justify going if you were so upset?” one commented underneath Whitmore’s photo from the event. “I’m sorry, but if my friend had just [died by] suicide, I wouldn’t have attended.”

It was a barbed comment, and one which has rightfully been shut down by a number of Whitmore’s more loyal fans.

“Post positively, post kindly, or don’t post at all,” one wrote in response.

Another added, accurately: “Yes, if it was your friend that’s what YOU would do. But you are not Laura or any of the others that decided to attend. They knew Caroline and knew exactly what she would have wanted.”

And still one more said: “I actually think a night surrounded by friends is exactly what Laura might have needed.”

Laura Whitmore at the Brit Awards 2020
Laura Whitmore has said that she doesn't know how she feels in the weeks after Caroline Flack's death.

The debate continues to rage on now, with the original comment racking up over 47 responses and counting. And it has prompted a larger discussion about grief shaming – one which we here at Stylist feel the need to respond to.

What does grief feel like?

It should be abundantly clear by now that it’s impossible to know how someone is truly feeling from seeing them for a few minutes. That the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. That grief, above all else, is messy and confusing and uniquely individual to the person experiencing it.

As clinical professional counsellor Nick Frye wrote in his article Self-Care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy: “Isn’t it…true that every relationship is unique and therefore we all have our own unique experience with grief? After all, even a well-meaning friend who has had a parallel loss does not know how you feel.

“What we all do share is the experience of a broken heart because we lost someone/thing we love.”

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To put it more simply, blanket comparisons can’t be made for even parallel losses. Regardless of the type of loss, no one can know the extent of another’s pain and sorrow.

As noted by Mind, you may experience any of the following after a bereavement:

  • Sadness or depression
  • Shock or disbelief
  • Numbness and denial
  • Panic and confusion
  • Anger or hostility
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Relief
  • Mixed feelings

“We can feel all, none or some of these things,” Mind adds. “There is no right or wrong way to feel following a loss.”

What is grief shaming?

Grief shaming is exactly what it sounds like: judging someone for the way they’re dealing with the loss of someone close to them. Deciding that, somehow, they are not performing their sadness in an appropriate manner. And criticising them for being “too happy”, moving on “too quickly”, or being “too normal” about their bereavement.

Grief shaming: there is no one right way to grieve a loss.

What impact does grief shaming have?

When we lose someone we love, we may be furious, or numb, or knocked to the floor with the weight of our sadness. We might want to lie in bed for weeks, or throw ourselves straight back into work, or lose ourselves on dancefloors for a couple of months. We might need to be surrounded by people, or we might need to be completely alone.

Essentially, everyone mourns death in different ways at different times – and absolutely none of these ways are ‘wrong’. To imply otherwise isn’t just misinformed: it’s spiteful. Because, by placing expectations of what grief should look like on those mourning, we’re piling on guilt and pressure, all of which may prevent people from processing their own feelings.

This is something Sophie Perry knows firsthand. Shortly after the loss of her father, Riverdale and 90210 actor Luke Perry, she was attacked on social media for not behaving like a grieving daughter ‘should’.

Responding directly to her critics at the time, she wrote: “I am hurt and sad and crying and beside myself with what happened to my dad. It’s the worst thing to ever happen in my life. And I am torn the fuck up over it.

“But I’m not going to sit in my room and cry day in and day out until the internet has deemed it appropriate for me to do otherwise,” she continued. “And if you knew my dad you would know he wouldn’t want me to. So you shouldn’t either.

“So to those of you shaming me for my language and my wardrobe and most disgustingly, my grieving process, do us both the favour and just unfollow.”

So remember…

A person’s coping mechanisms are rarely a ‘choice’. Rather, they are a necessary survival tactic, and whatever helps them find small moments of peace or joy should not be judged. They’re doing their absolute best to stay afloat, and they don’t need anyone pushing them down.

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So what should you do if you feel yourself judging someone for going about their day-to-day life after experiencing a devastating loss? Keep it to yourself. And not just because you have no clue what’s going on in their head, but because we should be encouraging people to face and express their emotions. 

To quote Frye once again: “It’s OK to be angry, to yell at God, to cry or not to cry. It’s also OK to laugh, to find moments of joy, or to let go when you’re ready. Your grief is your own.”

With that in mind, please don’t ever force people to suppress their emotions. Don’t lash out at them. And try not to make them feel bad for feeling good. Because, whatever your personal opinion on the matter, surely you couldn’t ever begrudge someone finding happiness wherever they can?

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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